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Desert Diary
Ecology/Sunburned Plants


Chihuahuan Desert visitors often are amazed at the power of the sun here! Sunscreen helps us, but what about plants? Isn't the sun harsh on them, too? Maybe you have never thought of plants getting a sunburn, but that's a real danger. But cacti, in particular, have some amazing adaptations that help them withstand our blazing sun!

Look at a prickly pear cactus. Which way do the pads face, and how are they shaped? The pads are round and flat, and grow so only the narrowest part of the pad faces the sun during the hot part of the day!

Other strategies are used, as well. You may have encountered those nasty spines. But look—in some cacti, these spines shade the stem so it doesn't get sunburned! As the sun moves, different parts are in shadow, so no place on the cactus gets too much exposure. Can you think of other ways plants might protect themselves? If so, look around. You just might find a plant doing it!
pen and ink

Listen to the Audio (mp3 format) as recorded by KTEP, Public Radio for the Southwest.


Contributor: Kodi Jeffery, Centennial Museum, University of Texas at El Paso.

Desert Diary is a joint production of the Centennial Museum and KTEP National Public Radio at the University of Texas at El Paso.

prickly pear cactus
hairy cactus

Top: Pricklypear cactus. La Union, Doña Ana Co., NM, 8 Jan 2001. Bottom: A captive cactus showing a heavy sunscreen of "hairs". Photographs by A. H. Harris.



Web Resources

Barrel Cactus. Incidental mention of sunburn. rule